Opinion: Repairing Partisan Rot

Brookline, MA 1st Mar 2016: A lady casts her vote on Super Tuesday. (Photo by: Nikita Sampath/BUNS)
Written by Landry Harlan

By Landry Harlan
BU News Service

Massachusetts voters will vote to fill 160 open seats in the State House this November. Yet, 116, or about 72 percent, of those seats will go unopposed. Ballots for the state’s representatives in the United States House will have a similar bend, with four of the nine incumbent members, all Democrats, facing no opposition. Massachusetts consistently has some of the least competitive legislative elections with 79 percent of general election races where a major party fields no candidates, compared to the U.S. average of 38 percent between 2010 and 2014.

I get it; choices are hard. It’s like when your favorite burger spot unveils a whole updated menu that’s pages long, packed with new ingredients you’ve never heard of. Can’t my usual waiter just tell me what to order? He knows what I like, and I don’t have the time or inclination to research and try new things. So, you just keep eating the same old house burger, content with the familiar, “Just get me the usual!”

That same mentality is present at the ballot box. Why bother digging into the policy of everyone on the ticket? You’ve been blue your whole life. There’s no need to stain yourself with a bit of Republican red. I see you smirking Republicans. Don’t think you’re not just as guilty of this.

Last week, I received my Oklahoma absentee ballot, a state that practically bleeds crimson out of every political institution. A unique feature is an option at the beginning of the form for “straight party” voting, available only in ten states. This allows voting for only candidates of your party in all partisan races without having to fill in the box for each race. That was seven total races on my ballot. It’s admittedly a tempting offer. I glanced over at the legislative races and only recognized a couple of names. Yet, they all had their party listed right under their name, as if it was actually a part of it.

An uncontested election is not democracy. It’s a malaise that allows politicians to become entrenched and complacent. Voters are just as accountable for this. Whether it be a sense of hopelessness for a candidate’s chances or sheer laziness, conceding to elect legislators on party, not on policy, allows for this partisan rot to become routine.

The non-competition can also be linked to gerrymandering. This is when one party draws the boundaries of an electoral map in their favor. This happens through redistricting of demographics, such as by party line. Consider Illinois, where this year, of the 40 districts up for election, 30 have already been decided because of unopposed candidates.

David Jepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University says that “If I’m in a safe district, all I have to do is keep my base happy. I pander to my base, whether I’m a Republican or Democrat.”

It’s a challenge to change your ways after being pandered to. Just ask your kids and pets. It can even keep you from making the effort at all. Less than 9 percent of Massachusetts residents voted in the primary elections last month, according to the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office. You can probably guess one of the main contributing factors.

“The turnout at a primary depends very much on whether or not there are contests,” said Brian McNiff, a spokesman for Secretary Bill Galvin. “Some areas there were contests, but many offices were not contested.”

One solution seems obvious, right? Just remove the party designations from the ballot! Make voters go to candidate’s websites, read policy proposals and vote on reason, not party pride. Yet, opposition seems to finally show up when constitutional amendments to allow for this are introduced. In South Dakota, the GOP party’s Executive Director Ryan Budmayr sent out an email to voters asking them to oppose “Rick Weiland’s plan to elect Democrats by hiding party labels on the ballot.”

The amendment would have allowed the two candidates with the most votes to move on to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. The amendment will be decided on in the November general election. Similar efforts are being made in Minnesota and California. No such measure has yet been proposed in Massachusetts.

A ballot without party affiliations is a start. Still, we voters hold all the power. Sure, it can be overwhelming to think of all those candidates and the research it requires to find out if their ideologies match with yours. Fortunately, vote.ma.org makes the task simple and straightforward, allowing users to compare candidates in each of the races on November 8.

Who knows? You might even learn something that will cause you to crossover the party line into that beautiful land called bi-partisanship. The house burger was never that great anyways.

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